Surreal: A Soap Opera Starring Berlusconi (@NYT)

By Rachel Donadio @ NYT

ROME,22 January 2011

KARIMA EL-MAHROUG, the beautiful 18-year-old nightclub dancer nicknamed Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby Heart-Stealer) at the center of a sex scandal involving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, went on television last week to explain herself.

As her gripping testimony, décolletage and muted leopard-print top drove up ratings on a channel owned by Mr. Berlusconi, Ms. Mahroug said she had never had sex with him — “He never even laid a finger on me” — and never asked for 5 million euros ($6.7 million) to keep quiet. “I’m capable of exaggerating, but not that,” she said.

Nor, she said, had she ever worked as a prostitute, although she did say Mr. Berlusconi gave her 7,000 euros in cash after the first party she attended at his house (when they were introduced, she said, “Hi, I’m Ruby, and I’m 24,” she recalled). She also said she once stripped for “a client” at a Milan hotel, but when she told him it was her first time, he paid her 1,000 euros and told her to leave.

Ms. Mahroug seemed unfazed by the suggestion that wiretapped phone conversations published in the Italian press last week might contradict her. (In one, she said she had attended the prime minister’s parties since she was 16.) Nor was she moved by prosecutors’ allegations that Mr. Berlusconi had described her as a niece of Egypt’s president when the prime minister helped release her from police custody for theft last May.

“Oh, I don’t know what’s in the wiretaps,” Ms. Mahroug said. “I don’t know what journalists write that’s true or not true.”

Neither, it seems, do many Italians. Ms. Mahroug’s performance was the latest installment in a surreal and very Italian tragicomedy — one that blurs fact and fiction, reality and reality television — in a land where the border between appearance and reality has long been hazy, both in and out of politics.

In this episode, magistrates recently announced that they were investigating whether Mr. Berlusconi gave Ms. Mahroug and other women cash, gifts and rent-free housing in exchange for sex. But the full drama has been airing for the 17 years that Mr. Berlusconi has been Italy’s most colorful politician, playing to an audience shaped by the sensationalist television culture he helped create in his three decades as Italy’s largest private broadcaster.

Today, the dramatic tension is rising. Mr. Berlusconi appears less the leader of a Western European democracy than a character in a late Roman Imperial drama, whose actors seem powerless to control their fates against larger currents of destiny. “He is, in a certain sense, a prisoner of this world that he created,” said Mario Calabresi, the editor of the Turin daily La Stampa.

As described in the Italian press, it is a world in which older men hold court and flirt with leggy showgirls and where middle-aged women, a prime audience for Mr. Berlusconi’s channels and an important bloc in his electorate, swoon over young male heartthrobs. It is also a world in which bad girls confess that they just want to leave “the world of spectacle” to get married and settle down, as Ms. Mahroug said in her interview, to the applause of the audience.

Gently prodded by Alfonso Signorini, a host on Mr. Berlusconi’s channels and the editor of Chi, a tabloid owned by the Berlusconi family and central to its image-building, Ms. Mahroug described a rough life.

She said she was raped at age 9 by two uncles in Morocco, a claim her father is contesting in the press, and moved to Italy with her mother, where she struggled in school and turned to petty theft. She said was ashamed of being Moroccan, so told people that she was Egyptian.

“I invented a parallel life,” she said.

“You invented a parallel life,” Mr. Signorini echoed. Not quite an admission of guilt, the line became a running theme in the interview — and the key to understanding the entire scandal, if not Italy itself.

HOW can it be, many non-Italians ask, that Mr. Berlusconi is still in power? The basic answer is simple: politics. A growing number of Italians would probably change the channel if they saw an alternative, but the left is weak and the center unfocused, and for now the prime minister has a parliamentary majority, if narrow. His fate now lies with his coalition partner, the Northern League, which is growing increasingly restive, and no one has ruled out early elections.

But then there are the parallel lives. Average Italians express such disdain for their politicians, and for the many scandals they have lived through, that they can see the latest drama unfolding on one plane while they try to get on with their lives on another. Italy is a survival culture, steeped in that most time-honored survival mechanism: fatalistic resignation.

Since the Roman Empire, politics here has been seen as a means to power and money. Even today, Italy remains a land where complex networks of connections and family ties can still, as in feudal times, count more than merit or position, whether in getting a job or a bank loan. In my experience, Italians have a highly sophisticated understanding of power dynamics, a keen sense of whom you have to say yes to, and with whom you can get away with saying no.

In the wiretaps to emerge in the scandal, dozens of women appear to have been encouraged by their families and friends to get as close to Mr. Berlusconi as possible so that he might somehow help out in business dealings. He remains the biggest patron in a patronage society, and many Italians can understand that.

There is also an entrenched Catholic culture of forgiveness. This is, after all, the country whose justice ministry is in fact called the Ministry of Grace and Justice, in that order.

Mr. Berlusconi, who has denied all wrongdoing, has repeatedly said that it is outrageous for magistrates to leak wiretaps from preliminary investigations to the press without sanctions. (A bill his government advanced that would restrict wiretapping has stalled in Parliament.) The prime minister has repeeatedly depicted magistrates as a self-contained caste, a de facto political opposition that is out to get him. In fact, Italians show little faith in their slow and chaotic justice system, and many shrug off the scandal. “What do you expect? Judges are judges” is a common refrain.

Lately, however, the particular details of this scandal are proving too much for at least some Italians, including thousands of women who, disgusted by the wiretaps, have signed a petition calling for Mr. Berlusconi’s ouster.

“Do you have a nurse’s outfit?” the television agent Lele Mora asks one young woman he is inviting to a party at Mr. Berlusconi’s home, according to one transcript of a wiretap. “Go out and get one today,” he adds, telling her to wear nothing underneath except white garters. In another, Mr. Mora likens the villa to Michael Jackson’s house. “Wow, Neverland,” she answers.

IT is not always easy to translate between Italian and American sensibilities. There is no good English word for “veline,” the scantily clad Vanna White-like showgirls who smile and prance on television, doing dance numbers even in the middle of talk shows. And there is no word in Italian for accountability. The closest is “responsibilità” — responsibility — which lacks the concept that actions can carry consequences.

There is, however, an English word for Mr. Berlusconi’s television shows, and it is campy. The late-night program where Ms. Mahroug appeared, “Kalispera,” tapped into deep currents in Italian society — family, food, motherhood, nostalgia; randy old goats and leggy young blondes — and distorted them into a grotesque tableau.

After a segment in which the show’s golden retriever goes out clubbing in Milan and an interlude in which Mr. Signorini, in tapered plaid pants and a red sweater vest, danced the Charleston with another comely guest, it was time for the sit-down with Ms. Mahroug.

Beneath dramatic dim lighting, the 18-year-old said she had been introduced to Mr. Berlusconi by a friend who explained that Ms. Mahroug was going through a rough patch. “I told him everything in all sincerity,” Ms. Mahroug said of Mr. Berlusconi. “Except my name, age, and” — here she smiled a bit — “my country.”

If the classic definition of irony is a fundamental tension between what something is supposed to mean and what it actually means, between who is in on the joke and who is not, it is difficult to know if such a display is deeply ironic — or so far beyond irony as to be unironic.

Whatever it is, it is very Italian. This is, after all, the culture that invented the Baroque, with its trompe l’oeil ceilings, false doors, facades that disguise multiple layers and facades that disguise nothing at all. In his years in public life, Mr. Berlusconi has blurred the line between image and reality. Or rather, he has made a brilliant career on the fundamental Italian truth that image is reality.

In a video address broadcast last week, a quietly seething Mr. Berlusconi said prosecutors had violated the constitution and their treatment of his party guests had been “unworthy of a state of law.” “I’m serene, and you should be serene too, because the truth always wins,” he said. As to which truth — for that, the audience will just have to stay tuned.


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